- Museum number
- Series: Benin Coral
Fly-whisk made from coral beads.
- Production date
- 16thC - 19thC
Height: 103 centimetres
Width: 24 centimetres (max)
Depth: 4.70 centimetres
- Curator's comments
Temporary Register,1861-1921; no individual description. Slip 98,6-30.3 has drawing but no written description.
See correspondence in Collection File: Af1898,0630.
Note from EPS Roupell (3 June 1898):
"Coral. Fly whisk carried before the king by female naked youth - the ordinary fly whihsk is made from a horses tail this is evidently made from that idea. "
Read & Dalton 1899:
Fly whisk of the King of Benin, formed of strings of coral beads with a handle of four large beads of red jasper.
The coral beads are no doubt of European make, as well as the jasper ones. These last are similar in shape to the long carnelian beads which were exported from Europe for use in the slave trade.
‘A child surpasses beads’. This Edo adage compares offspring to costly red coral (ivie ebo’ or ‘European beads’) and stone beads (‘ivie egbo’ or ‘forest beads’). The latter, brownish-red agate or jasper (both varieties of chalcedony), are older imports from the north. The Portuguese introduced red Mediterranean coral in the last 15th century; its colour fit pre-existing tastes and symbolism – red is power, blood and danger. In Benin, both types are collectively referred to as ‘ivie’ and called ‘coral’ by English-speakers.
The monarch’s identity is linked to coral. After the 1897 invasion, Oba Ovonramwen faced the British in a white wrapper ‘covered with masses of strings of coral, interspersed with larger pieces […] His head dress […] was composed wholly of coral of excellent quality, meshed closely together, and must have weighed very heavily on his head, for it was constantly being temporarily removed by an attendant. His wrists up to his elbows were closely covered with coral bangles, so were his ankles’ (Roth 1968:xiii). These...belongings are very similar to today’s royal dress.
...Beaded regalia...would have been assembled and maintained by the Enisen, members of the palace Iwebo society. These official dressers assist the Oba, his mother and the more important chiefs.
...Beaded accessories accentuate wealth. Horse-tail whisks are popular prestige objects throughout Africa, raised and shaken in approbation, appreciation and acknowledgement. This unusual example replaces hair with coral strands; its 2.5 kilogram weight (Fagg 1978:28) speaks to the importance of status over comfort. Oba Ovonramwen owned at least one other example (Pitt Rivers 1977: pl26).
Coral beads have a mystical, medicinal aspect and are protective. In Renaissance Europe, coral averted the evil eye, a belief probably communicated to Africa. Its defensive use in Benin is supported by an annual ‘charging’ at the Ugie Ivie ceremony, held at Oba Ewuare’s shrine. The Oba’s and his chiefs’ coral are touched with sacrificial animal heads to purify and reinvigorate it; in centuries past, a slave was killed for this purpose.
- Not on display
- Exhibition history
1970-1973, London, Museum of Mankind, Divine Kingship in Africa
1993-1997, London, Museum of Mankind, Great Benin: a West African Kingdom
2007 May-Sept, Vienna, Museum für Völkerkunde, Benin. Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria
2007-2008 Oct-Jan, Paris, Musée du quai Branly, Benin. Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria
2008 Feb-May, Berlin, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ethnologisches Museum, Benin. Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria
2008 Jun-Sept, Chicago, The Art Institute of Chicago, Benin. Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria
- Acquisition date
- 30 June 1898
- Acquisition notes
- British Expedition to Benin City, 1897.
- Africa, Oceania and the Americas
- Registration number